Sunday 23 December 2007

An Autobiography of Child Work: a reflexive account

Children’s perspectives are crucial in understanding the life-worlds of working children

An Autobiography of Child Work: a reflexive account. By Birendra Raj Giri in Childhoods Today, Volume 1 issue 2, December 18, 2007, Centre for the Study of Childhood and Youth at the University of Sheffield, United Kingdom.

This is an impressive account of the childhood of the author, Birendra Raj Giri, from Nepal, highlighting the ‘double trouble’ of combining schooling with work in rural areas. The article shows the importance of the different roles children play in their own family and society and how these are often not acknowledged by adults.

He managed to combine school with a heavy workload at home. Birendra’s description of his experiences brilliantly shows the awkward position of many children whose views are ignored by adults who claim to act in the best interest of children.

“While I loved attending school, teachers would be my worst nightmare because my household work often would not allow me to complete the homework and I had to pay the penalty for that. The common form of punishment at the school was beating from palm to shoulder with a long skinny stick and asking students to straighten their arms or slapping on their backs. The stick would have such an impact that not only the pain but also the ‘blue stripes’ on their hands or backs would last for days and a couple of times, I received cuts on my palm and arm because the teacher was using a rough stick.


There were numerous other forms of beating, including slapping students’ cheeks, pulling ears/hair, hitting on the head with books, putting a pen between two fingers and squeezing them, etc.


However, I felt the beatings were completely unfair because the teachers were not prepared to listen to my side of the story: although I would arrive at school bare-footed, wearing torn clothes and completely exhausted by working and walking, the teachers would blame me for being indolent; if I told them the truth, they would then accuse me of lying, in spite of the fact most of the teachers were aware of my family circumstances.

Telling my parents was not useful because they would say, “look son, teachers are good people, they want you to be good too; that’s why sometimes they punish you to teach you good discipline.” In Nepal, teachers are considered as ‘gurus’ who cause no harm to their pupils, but this is not always true, especially if you have to go through constant beating like an animal. Moreover, my father had warned me that if I ever failed, he would stop sending me to school. Thus, until I was about 15 years old (I left the village after I completed 10th grade or secondary education), I had no other choice than to believe that everyone was acting in my best interests – they had good intentions, wishing to make me a good person, so I had to continue to carry out household and farm work alongside my studies (Blanchet, 1996; Nieuwenhuys, 1994) - which meant that I was trapped between heavy work at home and severe beating at school.

In the light of such experiences, if those children who only engage in harsh work are called ‘child labourers’, and those who do acceptable jobs are called ‘child workers’, while those who neither work nor go to school are called ‘nowhere’ children, then children like myself should indeed be called ‘double troubled’ children, because they are caught up between heavy work and study, not to mention the severe punishments at school. My childhood experiences therefore make me believe that rural children of Nepal are deprived of education in multiple ways. Firstly, most village parents are extremely poor like my own, and cannot afford to send their children to school. Secondly, there are often no schools nearby and small children cannot walk for hours to reach the school. Thirdly, many children are double-troubled with work and schooling, which often become incompatible. Finally, the inferior quality of education quality and unfriendly student environment (viz. physical punishments) seriously discourage children from attending school.” (pages 9-11)

Based on his own experiences Birendra stresses the need to take children’s views into account in research and discourse on child work:

“[This does, however,] require that we understand children’s living and working conditions and how they make sense of the environment that they (are forced to) work in and only carefully devised research is likely to produce useful results regarding the different sectors in which children are found working.” (p.18)

Childhoods Today is a new e-journal published, bi-annually in the first instance, by the Centre for the Study of Childhood and Youth at the University of Sheffield, United Kingdom, and supported by the Worldwide Universities Network.

The aim of the journal is to publish high quality empirical and theoretical work by up-and-coming researchers in the field of childhood studies and to provide a reference for others working in this and related fields.

Childhoods Today is an externally reviewed journal that is unique in providing an international forum designed exclusively for the publication of articles by postgraduate students (i.e. those studying for their MA, M.Phil. or PhD, as opposed to post-doctoral students) working in the field, which can be accessed by other interested postgraduates and academics.

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